The Roots of Advertising: A Case Study In Cause-Related Marketing And How American Express Helped Restore An Enduring Symbol of Freedom

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Many companies participate in charitable promotions these days. Whether it’s a localized effort, such as Campbell’s Tackling Hunger campaign with the Buffalo Bills and our client TOPS Friendly Markets, or something that occurs on a national scale, like General Mills’ Box Tops for Education® program, companies are taking pride in giving back. And for good reason, as companies that donate money to charitable causes are often viewed more favorably by consumers—in addition to receiving other benefits like free publicity and improved employee morale and participation.

Such activity is known as Cause-Related Marketing (CRM), and it occurs when a for-profit business creates a co-branded marketing campaign with a non-profit organization and then donates a portion of the proceeds to a designated charity. It is “a blend of traditional marketing and philanthropic appeal” that provides consumers with a sense of altruism when they purchase the product or service connected to the promotion (or, in the case of the Campbell’s campaign, when the Bills defense makes a tackle).

Though earlier examples exist, American Express’s 1983 campaign for the Statue of Liberty is regarded as the source of modern CRM (primarily because it brought the concept of CRM to a widespread audience, and because an integral member of the campaign team coined and copyrighted the term itself).

American Express’s foray into CRM campaigns occurred in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1980s. At the time, the financial services corporation faced competition from BankAmerica Corp. and others, and was looking for a way to increase its regional card sales.

In stepped Jerry C. Welsh with an innovative idea. Welsh, who served as executive vice president of worldwide marketing and communications at American Express, wanted to create a marketing campaign that directly linked consumer action to corporate giving. The campaign would be separate from American Express’s more traditional philanthropic foundation, and would go beyond just writing a check to help with a specific cause.

Welsh understood that consumers relate to local causes more readily than national ones, and thus devised a campaign that focused on something that all citizens of San Francisco knew and cared about—the San Francisco Arts Festival. For every purchase that a local customer made with an American Express credit card, the corporation donated two cents to the arts festival. In speaking about the campaign, Welsh later explained, “By giving people a local cause to rally around, we hoped to spark cardholders into using their cards for local purchases.” With memorable lines like “Eat for the Arts,” the campaign performed well enough during its three-month tenure to warrant an attempt at a large-scale CRM effort.

There was only one question: What cause should the corporation support? In the summer of 1983, Welsh floated the idea of American Express creating marketing campaigns on behalf of higher education, a national arts program, and historic preservation efforts, but his bosses were not terribly enthused. Welsh received responses such as “Not focused enough” and “Not hard-hitting enough.” Nevertheless, he remained committed to the task at hand.

Then, one afternoon, while looking out of his office window at the Statue of Liberty, Welsh knew he had found the perfect cause to support. Lady Liberty’s centennial celebration stood just three years away, and she was in need of some reconstructive surgery. With no city, state, or federal government eager to fund the restoration, Welsh saw an invaluable opportunity for American Express to come to the rescue by launching a national CRM campaign.

“The Statue of Liberty is arguably the most universally compelling cause to Americans,” Welsh later said. “It was basically obvious to me that, structured correctly, a national campaign to support [the Statue] would be a sure success.”

The campaign—which ran from September to December of 1983—pledged to make a contribution to the Statue of Liberty–Ellis Island Foundation every time a customer performed a specific type of action. Thus, in the final quarter of 1983, American Express donated one cent for each credit card transaction, one dollar for each new card account opened, one dollar for every $500 travel package purchased, and one penny for each purchase of American Express Travelers Cheques—all to the designated foundation.

The main print ad for the campaign, designed by art director Nancy O’Neil, featured a close-up view of Lady Liberty’s face on the left-hand side, and explanatory copy on the right. The Statue and the copy each comprised precisely half of the visual field, and had slightly different shades of blue as backgrounds. The image of Lady Liberty was selected because it “looked striking and had a strong, visceral impact.”

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Though the campaign supported a very noble cause, lead creative director Jeff Atlas recognized that American Express had to be extremely careful in how it presented everything. He did not want the public to think that American Express was “trading on or cheapening the image of the Statue” for its own gain—especially because the Statue of Liberty is the most recognizable symbol of American values and beliefs. As such, Atlas crafted a message that was “dignified, intelligent, and just a little bit formal.”

Nowhere was this more evident than in the ad’s headline: “In addition to all the logical reasons for using the American Express Card, there is now one that is unabashedly sentimental.” Infusing the headline with a literary word like “unabashedly” let readers know right away that the ad was somehow different from the usual fare, and that it was “not talking down to them.” According to Atlas, the word helped to inform readers that this was “an intelligent ad with intelligent language for an intelligent person.”

The body copy continued in this heady direction, with the words “extolling” and “eminently” employed in the introductory sentence, and the word “auspicious” appearing in the key rationale for the campaign. Despite the lofty language, the advertisement never strayed from the message at hand—for it repeatedly emphasized the importance of supporting the Statue of Liberty restoration efforts, and clearly explained what consumer actions were required for American Express to make a cash donation. The advertisement concluded with a clever spin on the corporate slogan: “The American Express Card. For the sake of the Statue of Liberty—Don’t leave home without it.”

The campaign made headlines in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and on television news, reaching millions of people across the country and even attracting a fair amount of attention overseas. Overall, new American Express card applications increased by 45 percent; card usage rose 28 percent in just the first month of the campaign; and an estimated $1.75 million was raised for the Statute of Liberty between September and December of 1983.

American Express’s campaign succeeded for several reasons. First and foremost, the corporation supported a cause with widespread national appeal, and did so in an intelligent and respectful manner. Then, to ensure that people knew about the campaign, American Express committed to spending several million dollars to advertise it to the public. (Welsh estimates that the publicity and advertising associated with the campaign helped raise nearly ten times more than what American Express donated, as people and other companies opened their wallets—even if they did not own an AmEx credit card.) Lastly, the campaign succeeded because American Express presented compelling arguments as to why people should support the effort—the most notable of which appeared in the aforementioned print ad: “For, while it is [Lady Liberty] who stands for all of us, it seems a most auspicious moment to show that all of us truly stand behind her.”

In the years that followed, a flurry of corporate activity surrounded the Statue’s restoration efforts—with 21 companies pledging $69 million “in exchange for exclusive rights in their product categories to use the Statue in product promotions.” These companies were inspired by American Express’s campaign, and saw an opportunity to follow suit by linking themselves to an already-established cause. Interestingly, American Express opted not to participate in this final push to restore the Statue of Liberty before its centennial celebration. In Welsh’s opinion, the proliferation of corporate sponsorships made it “hard to rise above the noise,” and “easy for a company’s good deeds to escape public notice.”

This evolving landscape between for-profit businesses and non-profit organizations led Welsh to deliver a prescient observation following the restoration: “The wave of the future isn’t checkbook philanthropy. It’s a marriage of corporate marketing and social responsibility.” The evidence of this is all around us, and American Express’s campaign for the Statue of Liberty played an instrumental role in paving the way.

Is there an iconic brand that you’d like to hear more about? Tell us in the comment section below; then, stay tuned to see if your brand is chosen for our next installment of “The Roots of Advertising”!

Tom Stearns
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